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Journalism works as a matter of principle

Five years ago this month, Sauk Valley Media adopted a Statement of Editorial Principles.

You can read the whole thing on our website, saukvalley.com. Just click that link that says “Editorial Principles” at the bottom of any page.

Loyal readers know that each year, while he is fishing in northern Wisconsin, the editor needs a column short-cut. So, as he did when the principles were developed in 2008, he uses this column to offer an abbreviated version of the newsroom’s 1,500-word code of ethics.

Guess what? It’s time to go fishing!

OUR 5-YEAR-OLD statement of principles gives our reporters, editors and other newsroom people some guidelines for their conduct as they do their jobs – and, to some extent, during their time off, too.

We adopted the guidelines shortly after this editor arrived in the Sauk Valley.

Our code cannot, of course, anticipate every ethical issue or problem our staff members might encounter.

But we designed this simple and straightforward guide to fully acknowledge that some matters of journalistic conduct can be anything but simple and straightforward.

WE COMMIT THIS code to writing – and print it each year – for two reasons.

First, our newsroom staff should have a basic understanding of how they are expected to conduct themselves while they report, write, and process news and information.

Second, we believe our readers should have a written standard by which to judge our performance.

We urge both employees and customers to comment on, question, and critically consider this professional creed.

WE DIDN’T DEVELOP these guidelines in a vacuum.

Codes from other journalism organizations were consulted, including Community News Holdings Inc., Dallas Morning News, Gannett, New York Times, San Jose Mercury News, Society of Professional Journalists, and the Washington Post, in addition to similar documents that this editor established at other newspapers where he worked.

You can read a complete copy of our code online, or we could send you one via email or postal service (your choice). Let us know.

Here is an abridged version:

1. WE ARE NOT Special People; We Are Regular People With a Special Job

... We must maintain the highest principles in our conduct. Our integrity is our most valuable asset. Without it, we lose the public trust invested in us by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

This statement offers guidelines to help editors, reporters, photographers and other newsroom personnel to conduct themselves ethically. It is intended as an aid to common sense and individual conscience – not a substitute for them.

2. TRUTH AND Fairness Must Underscore What We Publish, How We Behave

We will acknowledge errors of fact and correct them promptly.

We will seek opposing views and pursue responses from those whose conduct or views are questioned in published articles and personal columns.

We will never knowingly mislead readers by publishing known falsehood as unquestioned truth.

We will specifically identify people by race, religion, sex or sexual orientation only when readers need that information to understand the context of a story or to aid authorities in the apprehension of criminal suspects.

3. PERSONAL INTEREST Cannot Interfere With Our Acting in the Public Interest

We will not use our newspaper positions to gain benefit or advantage in commercial transactions or personal business for our families, our acquaintances or ourselves.

We will neither seek nor hold government office and will avoid political activity, which includes contributing time or money. ... This is not intended to discourage exercising the right to vote.

4. OUTSIDE WORK Must Not Conflict With Our Primary Job

We may free-lance for publications that are not in direct competition with properties of Sauk Valley Media. ... All free-lance assignments must be approved, in advance, by an appropriate supervisor.

... Nor will our editorial independence be compromised by the appearance of conflict through association with a public agency or private business. To that end, we will neither share nor sell unpublished notes and photographs, and we will resist efforts to compel their disclosure.

5. TV AND RADIO Appearances Extend Our Brand as the Local News Leader

While appearing on TV or radio, we should be identified as representatives of our newspapers. During such an appearance, we should meet the same high standard of fairness and impartiality as is expected in our jobs.

6. PERSONAL Relationships Will Not Affect Our Editorial Judgment

No staff member should write about, photograph, illustrate, or affect news judgments about anyone related by blood or by marriage, or anyone with whom s/he has a personal relationship. This does not apply to first-person stories and personal columns. ...

7. CONFIDENTIAL Sourcing Is Allowed Only in Special Circumstances

We will seek to disclose to readers the name of the source of any information we gather for publication. Such transparency is important to lend credibility to sources and our publications.

Before information is accepted for publication without full attribution, we must make every reasonable effort to get the source on the record. ... If we do withhold a source’s name from publication, we will ask for an on-the-record reason for concealing the identity and will include that reason in the story. ...

8. OBSCENITIES and Profanities Generally Should Be Avoided

With few exceptions, we will not print obscene or profane language. The editor or managing editor must approve any such publication. Source and context will be considered. Obscenities and profanities offend many readers and often divert attention from a story.

9. PEOPLE WITH Whom We Deal Deserve Our Respect

We will seek to protect victims and witnesses of crime, especially when their lives or safety might be endangered by publication of their names or addresses. That includes victims of rape, child molestation, and sexual abuse, and those protected by a restraining order.

10. VIOLATORS COULD Face Discipline

A knowing violation of this code will subject an employee to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

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